For Whom the Bell Tolls: Sounding a Wake-Up Call

By Ronald O’Keefe

By Ronald O’Keefe

Even the most proactive of fire chiefs can use a little review from time to time regarding enforcing safety procedures. As a 27-year firefighter, 16 years spent as a chief officer and seven as chief of the department, I feel qualified to offer solid advice on the subject. Especially since my present career in risk management focuses on making fire departments and firefighters safer. So consider this article a serious wake-up call.

Firefighter Fatalities
In light the number of articles I’ve recently read in newspapers, on Web sites and in trade journals about “collisions" (we do not call them “accidents" anymore) involving emergency responders and firefighters falling from—or being hit by—vehicles, this basic question immediately comes to mind: When are fire chiefs going to demand better driving, or driver training, and enforced policies to protect their personnel? I get the feeling from many firefighters I still come in contact with that the dangers of their job and resulting firefighter fatalities are regarded as a “badge of honor" they wear proudly. I don’t get it!

The fire service has come a long way in regards to safety, yet we continue to injure and kill firefighters due to lack of training and policy enforcement. Not standing up to decision makers by saying “no, we cannot do this anymore because it is not safe" also proves to be a shortfall in the protection of our firefighters.

Look at recent statistics from the past several years and you’ll see that one of the leading causes of firefighter deaths and injuries involves motor vehicle collisions and motor vehicle operations. In 2004, for example, three firefighters were reportedly backed over and killed by their own fire apparatus according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA Journal, July/August 2005). That same source goes on to state that, of the 103 on-duty fatalities reported in 2004:

  • 17 deaths resulted from vehicle crashes, and eight involved firefighters being fatally struck by vehicles.
  • Six of the 17 killed in crashes were reportedly in privately owned vehicles, and four of those victims were not wearing seat belts.
  • Four of those 17 fatalities involved speeding.

Policies and Protocol
Take some time to ponder these questions:

  • What are you personally doing within your department to prevent these sorts of injuries/fatalities from happening?
  • Do you have specific policies for emergency response?
  • What is your non-emergency response protocol?
  • Is responding to emergencies in personally-owned vehicles (POV) allowed?
  • Do you have a policy to cover responding to emergencies in POVs?

A fire chief recently boasted to me that he still orders new apparatus with standard transmissions. Why, I wondered, as that is one more thing for a firefighter to have to learn, remember and worry about as they respond to an emergency. Think about having to double clutch and downshift while trying to drive defensively and look out for oblivious motorists talking on cell phones or reading the paper while they drive or simply refuse to yield to the emergency vehicle.

There is already plenty for the driver/operator of an emergency vehicle to learn and do. Why not take some of the pressure or burden off of them by using automatic transmissions? They are especially good for fire departments that do not have a high volume of responses because they more easily allow firefighters to become proficient in driving fire apparatus valued at anywhere from $200,000 to $750,000.

As a young company officer, I was known to have stopped my engine company from responding to an alarm until our back-step firefighter sat down and buckled his seat belt. This was during the days seat belt policies didn’t exist and standing in the open back cab of a fire engine was an acceptable practice. Did I get grief from the firefighters? You bet! And I am proud of it.

Remember, your primary duty as an officer is firefighter safety. To ensure it for all your department members, adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Make sure that staff has been trained appropriately and follows the department’s policies and procedures.
  • Slow your firefighters down! If you want to be an efficient, effective fire department and save time in response, reduce your turnout time and practice donning your self-contained breathing apparatus ahead of time in order to do so.
  • Be more proficient in stretching hose lines to save time. It is far safer than driving fast or recklessly to the scene. Look at it from an action perspective. At a fire, the goal is to quickly get water on the fire to reduce property damage. At a medical emergency, the goal is to initiate patient care as quickly as possible.

Try focusing on these priorities instead of placing so much effort on your on-scene time. Getting on scene quickly is important but your risk/loss benefit ratio should always be considered. Being more proficient at your other duties will bring better results overall and is a whole lot safer than just concentrating on getting on scene rapidly.

Liability Considerations
As an officer and supervisor, you must be aware of certain liabilities incurred if you do not enforce rules or ignore them. “Vicarious liability" is a term that every fire officer should know by heart. The formal definition of this legal term, according to Black’s Law Dictionary, is: the imposition of liability on one person for the acceptable conduct of another, based solely on a relationship between the two persons. Indirect or imputed legal responsibility for acts of another. In layman’s terms, if one of the firefighters you supervise is doing something wrong—like speeding or not wearing a seat belt—and you are aware of it, you can be held liable for the outcome of their actions (for example, collision, property damage, bodily injuries).

So, ask yourself these questions:

  • How well do you trust your firefighters with your liability?
  • Do they drive too fast?
  • Do they avoid wearing a seat belt in their POV while responding to an incident?
  • If they are violating the department’s seat belt policy and get injured in their POV or your fire apparatus, are they covered by workers’ compensation insurance?

There are plenty of available driver training programs that can be taken advantage of by your employees. Have a National Safety Council Defensive Driving Course presented to your drivers. Consider attending New Hampshire Local Government Center’s (LGC) 2006 Emergency Vehicle Liability Training series, complimentary for members of LGC’s Property-Liability Trust and for which two sessions remain in 2006. If you prefer to train and approve your drivers internally, follow the National Fire Protection Association’s recommended standards. Implementing any of these strategies is a positive start towards improving department safety and reducing needless injuries and deaths.

It’s time that every fire chief—no matter what size their department is—sends this simple but important message to their staff: Drive safely, wear your seat belt or safety restraint and slow down! If that directive is not heeded, your drivers should suffer the consequences of disciplinary action. And, yes, you can discipline a volunteer.

Remember, it’s your responsibility to make sure all of your firefighters go home safely to their families after every shift. It is also your responsibility to protect the public from unsafe firefighter actions. Wouldn’t it be nice to see future firefighter fatalities for a given year dip well below the 100 mark? You have the power to help make that happen. So wake up and do something about it before your employees become a statistic.

Ronald O’Keefe, CFOD, is the retired fire chief of Durham, New Hampshire, and now serves New Hampshire Local Government Center as a Risk Management Representative.